2020 election preview: Democrats make gains in key races

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Throughout much of his presidency, President Trump’s national approval rating has been mired between 40 and 45 percent, trailing the first-term approval ratings of recent presidents who went on to win their reelection bids. His disapproval ratings have routinely topped 50 percent. But even as recently as early summer, the president remained within striking distance in several key states he needs to carry for a repeat win in the Electoral College. No longer. His handling of the coronavirus pandemic, his own coronavirus diagnosis, his disastrous first debate against Joe Biden, to name only a few developments, have led to polling deficits for the president in key swing states. Not only do Republicans have to prepare for a potential loss at the presidential level, but a number of previously safe GOP seats in both the House and Senate have become competitive, putting Republicans on defense up and down the ballot.

Recent polling from Fox News, CNN, ABC/Washington Post, and NBC/Wall Street Journal all show Biden with at least a 10-point lead among likely voters. In the three states that Trump won in 2016 by less than a point, Biden holds a substantial lead. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages, Biden leads Trump by eight points in Michigan and by six points in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In recent weeks, updates to The Cook Political Report’s Electoral College ratings also favor the Democrats, with 290 electoral votes combined in the Solid Democratic or Lean Democratic categories, 163 electoral votes in the Solid Republican to Lean Republican categories, and 85 votes as Toss Ups (five states plus Maine’s 2nd Congressional District).

Among key demographic groups, Biden also maintains a steady lead over the president. Biden holds a double-digit lead among all women and among suburban women, a demographic group that has trended more Democratic over the last few cycles. In 2016, Trump carried
white women by 17 points, but has quickly lost key support from this group of voters. According to an October Fox News poll, 50% of white women disapprove of President Trump, and 62% of suburban women disapprove. Biden also has a lead among voters over 65 years old, which are not only the most reliable voting bloc, but also happened to give Trump a strong level of support in 2016. Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has turned off seniors, who place the pandemic as a top priority.

In the House, Democrats are poised to expand their majority, with Trump underperforming his 2016 margins by 5 to 10 points, dipping even further in suburban districts. Republicans are also defending 32 open seats, as compared to 12 Democratic open seats. Former GOP strongholds are now at risk, such as Indiana’s 5th District, which Trump carried by 12 points in 2016. Missouri’s 2nd District is another extremely competitive race this cycle: Rep. Ann Wagner has easily held this suburban Saint Louis district since 2012, but faced a surprisingly difficult race in 2018. This time, she faces a well-funded challenger in state Sen. Jill Schupp.

To take the Senate majority, Democrats need to net three seats if Biden wins the presidency; four seats if Trump wins. Of the 35 seats up for reelection in the Senate this year, 23 are held by Republicans, putting them on defense right away. As Election Day approaches, even formerly safe seats have become battlegrounds. In South Carolina, a state that Trump won by a 14-point margin, prominent Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has found himself in a highly competitive race. Democratic nominee Jaime Harrison, a former state party chairman, brought in $57 million in Q3, shattering former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s $38 million quarterly record from his 2018 Senate bid in Texas. Graham took to Fox News to beg his supporters for cash, claiming that Harrison was “killing him financially.” With his growing war chest, Harrison has been able to blanket the airwaves, and has made inroads with the state’s suburban, college-educated women, but will need to persuade moderate Republicans to turn out to vote for him to flip this seat.

Senate seats in other traditionally red states, including Kansas, Georgia, Texas, and Alaska, have also come into play this cycle. As Trump’s odds of winning look more and more grim, a number of Republican senators have attempted to distance themselves from the president. Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona declined to say whether she was proud of her support for the president, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas criticized Trump’s handling of the pandemic, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine broke with her party to oppose the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice a month before the election. The most likely GOP-held seats to flip are Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, and Maine.

As a Biden presidency becomes a possibility and the House remains out of reach, Republicans are desperate to hold onto their majority in the Senate and prevent a Democratic “trifecta.” But with early voting now underway across the country and over 59 million ballots already submitted, the die may already be cast.

To learn more about the state of the 2020 races, download National Journal’s 2020 Toolbox and Cook’s Tour of American Politics.